Yoga Medicine News
Our arms and hands are in front of the body most of the time, creating a common postural pattern where the head of the shoulder drifts forward in its socket. This pattern can impact our posture, breathing, and the weight-bearing position of the joint. In this video with Rachel Land, E-RYT 500 yoga teacher and Yoga Medicine® Therapeutic Specialist, you will learn how to activate one of the muscles on the posterior shoulder, our external rotator Infraspinatus, to help draw the head of the shoulder away from the chest back into the centre of its socket. You’ll then use that muscle activation to create central joint positioning in side plank.
Find the original video on Yoga Medicine’s Youtube channel.
Life has a compressive quality. We are all subject to the downward pull of gravity, and at this busy time of year often find ourselves carrying the weight of stress on our shoulders or, at least in the northern hemisphere, shielding ourselves against cold weather.
The expansive heart-opening poses common in yoga practice offer the perfect antidote. However, many of us arrive on our mats ill-prepared for these poses. We are sitting more than ever before: in front of computers and devices, in our cars, on our couches. This sedentary lifestyle leaves a legacy in our muscles and fascia, including shortened hip flexors and shoulders shifted forward in their sockets, patterns which can make backbends uncomfortable, even confronting, especially when we try to increase our range of motion.
Yoga heart-openers can help reverse these patterns, opening us up to more balanced biomechanics, better breathing, and potentially improved mood and energy. But unless we practice them skillfully, even compassionately, we take our postural habits with us, collapsing into our low back instead of opening our chest as intended.
One of the most well-known of the sage Patanjali’s sutras is 2.46: sthira-sukham asanam, commonly translated to mean that posture should be steadfast and easeful. This is particularly true in heart-openers, where the soft surrender of the chest must be supported by strength in our legs and core.
But how do we find that balance between effort and ease? The key is to find new pathways, like the three key actions outlined below, rather than exploiting habitual ones.
1. Posterior Pelvic Tilt
Short, tight hip flexors can pull the front rim of our pelvis forward into what is called anterior pelvic tilt. During backbends, anterior tilt increases the amount of extension required by the lumbar spine and can create a feeling of compression there. However if we create posterior pelvic tilt by lifting our pubic bone toward our navel and lengthening our sacrum, we not only take a rare opportunity to lengthen our hip flexors, we also create more space around the low back.
2. Scapula Retraction
The heart-opening aspect of backbends comes from expanding our chest, rather than extending our spine. Squeezing our shoulder blades toward each other, an action known as retraction, allows them to act like a scoop behind the heart. It’s the resulting lift of our sternum and broadening of our collar bones that gives backbends their potent benefits.
3. Core Support
Our abdominals link these two actions together, integrating the expansiveness of the upper body into the supportive strength of the lower body. Zippering our lower abdominals and knitting our ribs in and down creates an energetic connection between the sternum and the pubic bone. The result is a sense of balance or containment, channelling our backbends into uplift and expansion in the chest, as opposed to compression into the low back.
This simple sequence gives you a chance to try out these actions, allowing you to expand your heart space with compassion.
Hero Pose (Virasana) Variation
Find a comfortable kneeling position with your hands in prayer position (anjali mudra), resting your hips on your heels (or on a block or two if you need a little more support for your knees). As you inhale, allow your abdomen to expand, tipping your frontal hip points closer to your thighs – creating anterior pelvic tilt. As you exhale, hug your navel toward your spine and scoop your tail, directing your sitbones toward the back of your knees – creating posterior tilt.
Flow back and forth for four or five smooth steady breaths, familiarizing yourself with the sensation and noticing the influence pelvic position has on what you feel in your low back.
Low Lunge (Anjaneyasana) Variation
Lift your hips off your heels and step your right foot forward into a low lunge. Stack your right knee above your right ankle, taking a long enough step to bring your left knee behind your left hip.
The position of your back leg will tend to tilt your pelvis forward toward your right thigh, so balance that tendency by drawing your pubic bone toward your navel and lifting your right frontal hip bone away from your right thigh, recreating a some of the posterior pelvic tilt you practiced previously. Notice how that action creates length over the front of your left hip, and more space in your low back.
Now draw your arms behind you, squeezing your shoulder blades toward each other and turning your palms out to open your chest. Breathe into your front ribs, supporting that expansiveness by guiding your low ribs in and down.
Wild Thing (Camatkarasana)
Fold forward and plant your palms, stepping your right foot back in line with your left to transition into plank pose. Roll onto your left palm and the outer edge of your left foot, shifting into side plank (vasisthasana). Bend your right knee and step the ball of your right foot behind you, roughly level with your left knee. Then reach your right arm across your chest to catch hold of your left side ribs. Drive down through your left hand and use your right hand to help you roll your heart toward the sky, gliding your left shoulder blade toward your spine. Complete the pose by stretching your right fingertips overhead, creating space from fingers to toes. Expand into a few deep breaths before returning to hero pose to repeat the sequence on the second side.
After moving through the sequence on both sides, come to kneeling with your hips stacked above your knees. Set your feet and knees hip-width apart and tuck your toes under. Lengthen your sacrum and lift your pubic bone toward your navel to create posterior pelvic tilt. Then draw your arms behind you, retracting your shoulder blades and turning your palms out to open your chest.
Tilt back from your knees until your fingertips catch your inner heels, then press out through your hands and meet that outward pressure by magnetizing your heels toward the midline. Create support for your open heart by energetically drawing your pubic bone toward your sternum and knitting your low ribs in and down.
Stay here for another three or four full, deep breaths, poised in the balance between courage and compassion, effort and ease, strength and surrender. When you are ready to move on, use your core and legs to lift you up and out, returning to the kneeling position where the sequence began for a moment of reflection.
As Patanjali outlined centuries ago, one of the core benefits of yoga practice is its capacity to help us create balance in our lives. Case in point – as the modern lifestyle becomes increasingly compressive, yoga heart-openers offer the chance to feel spacious: to access deeper breathing, and to counter the physical effects of sitting. But the lifestyle habits that make backbends helpful also make them a challenge for many of us. Rather than following old patterns and pathways, it benefits us to explore new ones – to learn to balance a soft heart with supportive core and legs.
In this episode, Tiffany discusses Chinese Medicine, the idea of bringing the whole person into balance to allow the body to be more resilient, and how yoga can be a great tool for teens as well as adults to combat stress and support both our mental health and our hormones.
Click here to listen to the full episode.
Why are yoga and tai chi so beneficial for our bodies and minds? And can anybody really do it? Here are some moves you can try at home.
By Louise Parfitt For Inspire.
It’s easy to avoid exercise and moving a lot when you have arthritis – if you’re in pain, your natural reaction is to be still and quiet.
But it’s a vicious circle. When we move less, our muscles weaken, and this can increase pain. What’s more, many studies have shown that gentle exercise can help the symptoms of arthritis, easing pain and stiffness.
Exercise doesn’t have to be hard though. Both yoga and tai chi have been found to be beneficial for arthritis, improving strength, flexibility and fitness, while also being good for mental health.
“Yoga is a nice, gentle way for people who are scared of exercise to begin to move,” says Silvia Laurenti, senior physiotherapist and yoga therapist at the Minded Institute. “By learning simple movements, people feel empowered and more confident, and conditions, such as depression, might lift a little.”
This is backed up by a study published in Restorative Neurology and Neuroscience . It found that eight weeks of intensive yoga significantly improved the physical and mental health of people with rheumatoid arthritis, and reduced the severity of depression. It’s something that Lisa Muehlenbein, a Yoga Medicine® Therapeutic Specialist, has experienced herself. “I notice that the pain in my knees and wrists decreases following my yoga practice,” she says.
“This is because yoga gets the synovial fluid flowing in the larger joints, allowing smoother movement and creating a greater range of motion and increased flexibility.”
How Can Yoga Help?
With osteoarthritis, asanas – which are the physical postures in yoga – can increase strength and flexibility, and help prevent and manage flare ups. They can also be used alongside physiotherapy to aid recovery from a joint replacement.
Similarly, with rheumatoid arthritis, yoga can be used to maintain strength and flexibility when the condition is stable. As muscles are stretched, tension that is caused by lack of movement is also released.
Yoga can also change the way a person experiences the condition. “Pranayama (breathing), mindfulness meditation, restorative poses and relaxation can help manage symptoms of chronic pain,” Laurenti explains.
How Can Tai Chi Help?
Originating in China, tai chi consists of fluid, gentle movements that are slow and relaxed. There are many variations, but a program designed for people with arthritis can be beneficial in reducing stress, improving balance and offering some pain relief.
There is some evidence to suggest that tai chi can improve mobility in the ankles, hips and knees in people with rheumatoid arthritis, but it’s unclear whether it can reduce pain or improve the quality of life for people with the condition.
A review found aerobic and mind-body exercise (such as tai chi and yoga) to be useful for people with hip and knee osteoarthritis. It also found that mind-body exercise had similar effects to aerobic exercise for pain, with the potential to influence central pain sensitization, sleep disturbance, and mood disorders.
Although yoga and tai chi can be done at home, there are plenty of classes throughout the UK that offer friendship and social support, as well. As a space to get help with your practice. Just getting out to a class can lift your spirits and motivate you to continue with the exercise.
Try These Yoga Moves
Before trying any new exercises, check with your GP or get the advice of a qualified teacher. You can adapt the following postures to suit your body.
Stretches the hips, back and chest, and helps increase flexibility of the neck, shoulders and spine.
- If you are able to, start on all fours, with support under the knees and wrists. Alternatively, you can do a similar move from a chair.
- Inhale, and drop your tummy towards the mat. Lift your chin and look at the ceiling, dropping your shoulders down.
- Exhale, then bring your tummy towards your spine and round your back, like a cat stretching. Drop your head towards the floor.
- Repeat five times.
2. SEATED MOUNTAIN POSE
Stretches the trunk, waist and shoulders. This can also be done standing up, if you’re able to.
- Sit up tall in a chair. Lengthen your spine upwards, keeping your chin parallel to the floor, and breathe deeply.
- Lengthen your arms downwards and imagine energy flowing to your fingertips.
- Raise your arms above your head and stretch the body, breathing steadily.
- Hold this pose for 30 seconds to one minute, if comfortable.
3. STICK POSE
Stretches your legs, quadriceps and calf muscles.
- From mountain pose, lower your arms and put your hands on your thighs.
- Extend your right knee, lifting up your calf so your leg is parallel to the floor. Flex your right heel, lifting up your toes.
- Hold for two breaths, then switch sides. Repeat three times on each leg.
 Restorative Neurology and Neuroscience
Finding time for both yourself and your relationship can be one of the most difficult balances in life. You may assume that to meet the demands of one, you must sacrifice the other. But couples yoga can enhance not only your individual physical, mental and emotional health, but the health of your relationship.
How can doing couples yoga benefit your relationship?
“As with any health or wellness practice, it’s helpful to have a partner who supports you in the lifestyle and schedule shifts needed to maintain a new routine,” says Cruikshank. “As a couple I think one of the greatest things we can do to enhance our relationship is to deepen our own self-awareness and self-reflection to take ownership of our feelings and reactions.”
According to Cruikshank, this can help improve your communication with your partner.
“We all know that communication is key for a good relationship but this communication is also dependent on our self-awareness. Yoga captures this so eloquently with its practices focused on untangling the filter of our judgements and emotions, so we can see things more clearly,” says Cruikshank. “Not that our relationships magically become effortless, but that we start to see how it’s all entwined and begin to unravel it simply through our nonreactive awareness, self-reflection and compassion. Or better yet, a commitment to continuing to learn and grow together.”
Couples Yoga Poses
Pose #1: Child’s Pose
“This one is great for creating the foundation for self-reflection, sensing that there’s not a right and wrong in the noticing. This is a great place to come back to when you notice yourself stressed or emotional during your day,” says Cruikshank. “You can even just tune into it without the pose. Allowing yourself the space to notice how the terrain here changes, both influencing and being influence by our emotions and the world around us.”
How to do it: In this simple bowing posture, you need only sit back on your heels and bow your head forward to rest on the floor. If you have trouble sitting on your heels, try putting a pillow or blanket under your ankles or under your hips. You can also put a pillow or blanket under your forehead if it doesn’t easily reach the floor. As you allow yourself to be still here, notice the experience of being in your body and all the sensations under your skin. Notice the breath, areas that feel light or heavy, if you feel tired or energized, thoughts that come and go and anything else you notice here. Allow your mind to be the canvas as you paint a picture of the landscape of your experience in this moment. Stay for 2-5 minutes.
Pose #2: Couples Butterfly Pose
How to do it: Start seated with the soles of your feet together and knees spread apart. If sitting with the soles of the feet together is uncomfortable, you and/or your partner can opt to sit in a simple cross-legged position instead. Sit upright back-to-back and begin by noticing the breath, both yours and your partners. Then slowly start to deepen your breath for a 4-count inhale and a 5-count exhale. Repeat for 5-10 rounds. This is a great way to quickly induce the relaxation response to counteract stress and build stress resilience while you feel the support of your partner doing the same.
Pose #3: Supine Twist
How to do it: Start on your back, bending the knees in toward your chest and taking them off to one side. Allow your legs to rest on the floor in a comfortable position, using pillows or blankets under your knees if you like. Stay for 2-3 minutes on each side. Follow the same thread of nonjudgmental awareness you found in child’s pose above as you relax here and notice. A great pose to both wring out the day or prepare you for the day ahead, both rejuvenating and relaxing as needed. This supported twist gently massages the spinal nerves along each side of the spine that innervate and regulate both the organs and muscles. An efficient and effective pose on its own when you’re short on time.
Pose #4: Partner Savasana
“Traditionally yoga practice ends with this final relaxation, which can be a great time to reconnect with your partner (my personal favorite),” says Cruikshank
How to do it: For this one simply lie on your back, hand in hand, without any effort. Allow yourselves to enjoy a deep relaxation as you sense the physical and energetic connection and support between you. Relax here for 5-10 minutes. This final relaxation is often overlooked, but it’s an important time for the body and nervous system to integrate the effects of your practice. This is also a valuable way to increase vagal tone, associated with better stress resilience, greater heart rate variability and cardiac health, improved digestive health and everything else influenced by a decreased stress response.
Pose #5: Partner Meditation
How to do it: Sit side by side in a comfortable cross-legged position with your hips on a folded blanket or cushion so you can be comfortable here. Ideally you want your hips as high as your knees so adjust how many blankets/cushions you have underneath you to achieve that. Set a timer for 2-10 minutes, whatever you have time for. If you’re new to meditation start with 2-5 minutes. As you both close your eyes begin by noticing the breath inside your body. Allow yourself to be curious to the sensations and experience of the breath. Then allow your attention to expand out to notice the awareness around you and that of your partner. Sense the current of life that flows through both of you, however you experience that (the breath, heartbeat, blood flow pulsing through your, energy or vibration). When the timer rings slowly bring yourselves back to greet the rest of your day.
Optional: if you like and it’s comfortable you can do this side by side, hand in hand.
Meditation has so many benefits from stress reduction to mental clarity, focus and well-being. Notice how it affects the rest of your day and your time together or apart.
Find out how mindfulness therapy for couples can boost your connection.
Tiffany Cruikshank: How To Heal Your Mind Naturally
In this episode, Tiffany speaks to:
- How yoga medicine helped her on her journey to healing
- Tips to begin to heal your mind naturally
- The Placebo Effect
- Your innate power to heal yourself and how to tap in
Engaging in yoga for stress is a common therapeutic modality to calm the nervous system and work towards greater mental health. Valerie Knopik PH.D talks about the stress response and shares a yoga-related technique to activate your parasympathetic nervous system.
Find the original video on Yoga Medicine’s Youtube channel.
Increasing sensitivity is encouraged in the yoga practice. You are invited to tune into subtle engagements, explore energetics, notice thoughts, and experience emotions. It is thought that a continuous practice will increase awareness and sensitivity in all aspects of the human condition so up until recently I had wondered why, after 10 years of dedicated practice, I still felt disconnected from my emotions.
When I began practicing yoga, I was drawn to certain components that were missing from a regular workout regimen. Yoga allowed me to explore something that I had long forgotten — sensitivity. I enjoyed the deep relationship to my physical body that yoga provided, but as others were sharing experiences of emotional release within the practice, I became aware of how long it had been since something had warmed my heart or allowed me to cry. Although I remembered being a sensitive child, I realized as an adult I felt emotionally numb.
What happened to that sensitive kid? How could I feel so disconnected to myself when I was the most connected to my body that I had ever been?
Introducing Nature vs. Nurture
Recently, I found my answer rooted in both the Western and the Eastern world. This summer at the Mental Health and Wellness module with Yoga Medicine, we explored the concepts of nature and nurture. Nature refers to the biology of our genes which can also be thought of as what we inherit and Nurture is the perception that our minds are a “blank slate” and that we are molded by our childhood experiences, lifestyle choices, and our ‘life as a fetus’.
At this training, teachers Valerie Knopik and Diane Malaspina shared that “what makes us who we are” has often been thought of as nature or nurture dichotomy, but when in reality it is a combination of both. Our genetic make up, perceptions, environment, and our sensitivity factor into who we become and how we behave.
Although we are born with a specific genetic code, it can be altered by environmental factors like stress, lifestyle, community, and maternal exposure. The study of these changes that modify our gene expression is called epigenetics.
As I considered our environment’s effects on gene expression, I realized that I may have come to the practice with a genetic predisposition to be sensitive, allowing me to connect to the physical aspects of the practice more readily, but my lack of emotional connection could be a conditioned response to past traumatic events.
Connecting the Past and Present
I grew up in a home that had little tolerance for being emotional. Most of my parent’s time was spent on making ends meet. My dad worked and my mom tried to make what little he made stretch to cover all of our basic necessities. The lack of space for expression of fear, anxiety, worry, and sadness when the outcomes were less than desirable, eventually took a toll on my mother.
When I was 12, she suffered her first nervous breakdown. No longer was she able to cope with life’s challenges. It was intense. The person I had known—the one who had been so good at hiding her anxiety, fear, and worry—was now an emotional wreck. My mother had finally succumbed to the environment where she was not able to openly express her emotions. Instead, she bottled them up and as financial circumstances worsened, she would ultimately break under the pressure.
I believe I was conditioned for that very moment because the years of seeing my mother hold in her emotions prepared me to do the same. Instead of breaking down at the thought of losing her, I became stoic. I became numb. As one break led to another, as one diagnosis was replaced with another…depression, schizophrenia, mania, anxiety… I shut down. This was the only way I knew how to cope with what was happening.
Fast-forward 25 years and I am beginning to see that my mother’s nervous breakdown was a combination of genetics, environment, and sensitivity. Studies show that everyone carries genes that contribute to mental health disorders. Research on epigenomes has proven that environmental factors like stress effect gene expression and that our vulnerability and susceptibility can create a better or for worse outcome. Before my mother’s illness, I had always thought of her as “tough as nails.” Now looking back, I realized she was incredibly sensitive but wasn’t allowed to express herself.
Adapting to Survive
This childhood experience translated into years of creating boundaries to insure that I would not end up like my mother. There were long stints away from home in those early teenage years and as I grew older, I ignored phone calls to avoid her ruminations on past events or worries about the future. Without realizing it, I was reducing my exposure to an environment that I was highly susceptible to. I was living in survival mode.
So, what happens when the dysfunctional environment no longer exists?
Unfortunately, the past experiences that helped me adapt to dysfunction in my youth continued to play out into adulthood. I associated being emotional with my mother’s nervous breakdowns so I thought that if I let myself become emotional, then I would eventually lose control. I learned to be afraid of emotions and the result was to subdue my own and avoid anyone else’s.
Putting It All Together
I lost my mother August 1 st , 2018, six days before I was to attend Yoga Medicine’s myofascial release training. I told no one for fear I might not be able to control my emotions. As the week went by and we worked deeper into the connective tissue, I could no longer ignore the connections emotions have with the tissues of the body. I cried more at that training than I was capable of at her funeral.
Now, after years of practicing and studying yoga, I’m beginning to truly understand why I am so drawn to yoga and its lessons on life. I am slowly rediscovering that sensitive kid I spent years learning how to protect through avoidance. The simplicity and familiarity of the asana and pranayama practices are teaching me how to feel again before I realized that I was missing this capacity. I went to the mental health module expecting to gain insight and affirmations about my mother’s illness. However, I left that training with the fledgling understanding of how her illness affected my own mental health and emotional development as well as influenced the lessons within my yoga practice.
Place ball on your quad starting above knee & work slowly up thigh. Roll & compress on trigger points. Lower leg can relax or slowly moving heel to glutes.
Top of ITB – Lay on your side, please ball on the front of your hip (at your pocket), below bony protrusion. Compress then move lower, cover the whole outer edge of hip.
4. Erector Spinae & QL
Place two balls on either side of the spine, above the pelvis. Roll up & down the back, pausing to compress in lower, middle & upper back. Pause in the lower back, take knees to one side and pause. Repeat other side.
Place ball under foot – make slow circles under the foot, pause on trigger points at toe mounds, ball of foot and arch, scribble the heel, roll from toes to heel covering entire surface.
1.“OA is the most common joint disorder in the United States” Zhang, Y., & Jordan, J., 2011, ‘Epidemiology of Osteoarthritis’. Clin Geriatr Med. 2010 Aug; 26(3): 355-369 –> https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2920533/
Tuhina, N. 2013, ‘The Epidemiology and Impact of Pain in Osteoarthritic. Osteoarthritis. 2013 Sep; 21(9): 1145-1153 –> https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3753584/
2. WHO Department of Chronic Diseases and Health Promotion. Available at: http://www.who.int/chp/topics/rheumatic/en/
3. ‘The Epidemiology and Impact of Pain in Osteoarthritic. Osteoarthritis. 2013 Sep; 21(9): 1145-1153 –> https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3753584/
4. “research indicates that patient education, manual therapy, or exercise intervention…” https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/7621.php https://www.arthritis.org/about-arthritis/types/osteoarthritis/treatment.php
Svege, I., Nordsletten, L., Fernandes, L., & Risberg, M. (2015). Exercise therapy may postpone total hip replacement surgery in patients with hip osteoarthritis: A long-term follow-up of a randomised trial. Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases, 74(1), 164. Poquet, N., Williams, M., & Bennell, K. (2016). ‘Exercise for Osteoarthritic of the Hip.’ Physical Therapy 2016 Nov; 96(11):1689-1694.